16 Aug New water cuts coming for Southwest as Colorado River falls into Tier 2 shortage
An extraordinary drought in the West is drying up the Colorado River and draining the nation’s largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell. And amid the overuse of the river and the aridification of the region, the federal government is implementing new mandatory water cuts and asking states to devise a plan to save the river basin.
The federal government announced Tuesday the Colorado River will operate in a Tier 2 shortage condition for the first time starting in January as the West’s historic drought has taken a severe toll on Lake Mead.
According to a new projection from the Department of the Interior, Lake Mead’s water level will be below 1,050 feet above sea level come January — the threshold required to declare a Tier 2 shortage starting in 2023.
The Tier 2 shortage means Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will have to further reduce their Colorado River use beginning in January. California will not yet have cuts made to the water they receive from the Colorado River.
Of the impacted states, Arizona will face the largest cuts — 592,000 acre-feet — or approximately 21% of the state’s yearly allotment of river water.
“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency. In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science Tanya Trujillo said in a statement.
It was just a year ago that the Department of the Interior declared the first shortage on the Colorado River — a Tier 1. But the past 12 months did not bring enough rain and snow. Lake Mead’s level has been around 1,040 feet this summer, just 27% of its full capacity.
The growing concern is that the mandatory cuts announced today — part of a system that was updated as recently as 2019 — aren’t enough to save the river in the face of a historic, climate change-driven drought. States, water managers and tribes are now back at the negotiating table to figure out how to solve the West’s water crisis.
“We thought we were good, but the last few years have been so dry that we realized those tier reductions weren’t enough and aren’t enough,” Bill Hasencamp, the Colorado River resources manager with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, told CNN. “So the two things we’re focused on is how do we get through the next three years without the system crashing, and then how do we develop a long term plan to sustain the Colorado River.”
‘There’s only so much water’
The Colorado River’s water was divvied up among seven states in the West a century ago. The pact gave half of the river’s water to the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) and half to the Lower Basin (California, Arizona and Nevada). Mexico — through which the river flows before it reaches the Gulf of California — was also guaranteed an allotment.
There was one major problem: Having been written in the 1920s, at a time when precipitation was higher than normal, the pact overestimated how much water the Colorado River carries. It also did not account for the West’s booming population growth and its hotter and drier future in the face of the climate crisis.